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The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra

The Romantics (2000)

by Pankaj Mishra

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The "romantics" referenced in this novel's title are the expatriate Europeans living in Benares, India, but also the young Indian men who have fallen in with this group.

Our narrator, Samar, is a Brahman (thanks to Google, I learned that this term refers to a member of the highest Hindu caste, that of the priesthood) student who has moved to the holy city of Benares to study for the Civil Service Exam. He spends his days reading nineteenth century European novels in the library (such as [b:The World as Will and Idea: Abridged in 1 Vol|537365|The World as Will and Idea Abridged in 1 Vol|Arthur Schopenhauer|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1388203951s/537365.jpg|41113740], [b:The Torrents of Spring, First Love, and Mumu|5254229|The Torrents of Spring, First Love, and Mumu|Ivan Turgenev|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1328303410s/5254229.jpg|1298622], and [b:Sentimental Education|2183|Sentimental Education|Gustave Flaubert|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1327788473s/2183.jpg|314156]). Before reading this book, I had only a vague understanding of the caste system in India and the lingering effects of colonialism, and I was moved by Samar's fascination with these books and how he and his friend Rajesh were able to identify so deeply with Flaubert.

Every young Indian wants to pass the Civil Service Exam and gain a coveted government job, but the pool of hopeful applicants is far larger than the job market. Many students languish for years, studying for and fruitlessly taking the exam, before giving up, dejected, and moving on. In this post-colonial setting, members of Samar's caste have no outlet other than the Civil Service Exam and a government job. Samar's father is a member of an older generation whose way of life is a thing of the distant past. There is a disconnect between the Brahman's traditional societal role and what is left in this new India.

Samar, through his British neighbor, Miss West, meets a group of young European expatriates. The two members of this group he is most taken with are Miss West herself and her French friend Catherine. I kept getting these two women confused; their personalities are largely interchangeable. Regardless, they have a profound effect on Samar. Their "freedom," their aimlessness, their "romance" is alien to him. In one memorable scene, Catherine asks Samar if he had ever been in love before. He did not know how to answer her; in Samar's mind, marriage came first and love came afterwards; love before or without marriage was pointless.

The plot of this book is not action driven. Mishra is writing about caste and class in post-colonial India. I was deeply moved by this novel although it took me a while to get into the book. ( )
  bookishblond | Oct 24, 2018 |
This is a gentle look at a young Indian mans coming of age as he drifts through his education in Varanasi, meeting English and French people living in India for their own reasons, and Indian people from different backgrounds to his own. The narrator has very little agency for most of the novel, he learns from books and is a friend and observer of other people, while being quite naive himself. There's not much in the way of dramatic plot but it's a lovely read describing his personal growth as his life unfolds. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Aug 4, 2018 |
Sumptuously written, this bildungsroman set in northern India in the 1990s has echoes of Maugham and Waugh, but is its own book and is well worth the read. ( )
  librorumamans | Feb 2, 2017 |
This book is a good look at India and some of its customs. It also is a gentle tale of self-discovery as Samar falls in love and then finds out the hurt you can open yourself up to when your love is not returned. This is not a plot driven book but a kind of story that can settle your soul and give you a sense of peace. It is a beautiful written story by first time author, Pankaj Mishra, and one I would recommend highly. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 19, 2016 |
melancholy story of naiive Indian young man coming of age

  aletheia21 | Mar 17, 2012 |
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When I first came to Benares in the severe winter of 1989 I stayed in a crumbling riverside house.
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Trata de la vide de un joven universitario Indio en Benares a orillas del Ganges y de su incomprension del actuar de personas de diferentes culturas
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385720807, Paperback)

In Pankaj Mishra's debut novel, East not only meets West, the two forcibly collide, causing all manner of bruises and contusions. The hero and narrator of The Romantics, a young Brahmin student, has come to the Hindu holy city of Benares to study at the university. Samar's shelves are laden with tomes by Schopenhauer and Turgenev; his dreams center around passing the rigorous exam that will admit him into an Indian Civil Service originally created and shaped by the British Raj. His next-door neighbor in the cheap apartment he rents from an opium-addicted musician is British, and it is through her that Samar first experiences Western thought and culture outside the covers of a philosophy book. Diana West is well connected in the expatriate community, and soon she has introduced her naive protégé to other foreigners in search of something that eluded them at home. There is Mark, an American studying Ayurvedic medicine following various careers as "poet, dishwasher, painter, Tibetan Buddhist, carpenter, and traveler through such remote lands as Ecuador and Congo." There is his girlfriend, Debbie, who is considering converting to Buddhism, and Sarah, a German girl who already has. Then there is Catherine, a beautiful French woman in love with Anand, a poor sitar player with dreams of making it as big as Ravi Shankar. Suffice it to say that Samar finds this cast of characters both alluring and perplexing, and the juxtaposition of his life among the expatriates with his days spent with fellow Indian students only adds to his confusion. And then there is his unquenchable attraction to Catherine...

Pankaj Mishra has taken on an ambitious subject--the attraction and almost equal repulsion that the East and the West feel toward each other. At his best, he evokes his homeland with an aching immediacy:

A thin crimson-edged mist hung over the river when I walked out of the house. The alleys leading to the main road would be empty, the houses sunk in a blue haze, still untouched by the sun, which had already begun to tentatively probe the façades of the houses lining the river. Rubbish lay in uneven mounds, or was strewn across the cobblestone street, firmly sticking to the place where it had been deposited by an overflowing open drain. After every twenty meters or so, a fresh stench hung in the air.
He also masterfully exposes the almost absurd gap between the reality of India as Samar experiences it and the romantic notions that his foreign friends bring to it with their "self-consciously ethnic knickknacks" and their fleeting enthusiasms. One wishes Mishra had a little more faith in his considerable talents and the intelligence of his readers. Where he falls down is in the excessive explanations he provides of his characters' thoughts and motivations. They are, by and large, unnecessary; heartbreak is in the air the first time Samar meets Miss West, and by novel's end his cast of romantics are certainly sadder, if not all wiser. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:13 -0400)

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A young man travels to the holy city of Benares to complete his university studies and, obsessed by western culture, finds himself suspended between conflicted worlds.

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